review: the best man

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-BEST.html%5D

THE BEST MAN

by Gore Vidal
Directed by James Bohnen
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
at Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theatre
2257 N. Lincoln Avenue / (773) 871-3000
www.shatteredglobe.org
Through November 5, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 24, 2006

Gore Vidal has been an American expatriot and brilliant political curmudgeon for years now. This elegant and verbal revival of his elegant and verbal political 1960 play reminds us that he was doing “West Wing” drama before that television show was conceived. Wherever he lives, Mr. Vidal offers much to inform the contemporary American political scene. In the vein of Lindsay and Crouse’s earlier “State of the Union” but more parsimoniously conceived and delivered, “The Best Man” as presented by Remy Bumppo Theatre Company and directed by James Bohnen provides a look at American political party process through its quadrennial convention politicking, and the roles the back stage arm twisting, side deals, smarmy innuendos, and simple fear can play. This is also at its core a story of how there is always room for simple ethical individual backbone. A stunning revival of a timeless story.

And the story is simple: two political candidates (the particulars of party intentionally are left murky) are vying for their party’s nomination. William Russell (David Darlow) has been a cabinet Secretary in a prior administration and knows the ex-president Arthur Hockstader (played stunningly by Gene Janson in the performance I attended). His eager and younger opponent Joseph Cantwell is played with chilling, helmet-haired, and rigid backed determination by James Krag. Wives and female politicos enter and leave — and there is something of the “State of the Union” marriage in the Russell team, but the play does not focus on the original core, the original spark between these two marital survivors. Staff lackeys enter and exit, and the supporting cast is stalwart and serves the script well. Yet the play is centered and revolves around these three men. Who will earn the ex-president’s vote of approval? Will sordid stories from either of the candidate’s pasts be revealed? What is, in the end, a political persona and who in the end is the “best man”?

David Darlow’s Russell physically impresses as “In Like Flint” meets “A Thousand Clowns”, a man of handsome middle age who is secure in his own beliefs and uncomfortable with the shadings and compromises that are often necessary in public life. James Krag embodies the upright, forthright, Eagle Scout, repressed, sanctimony of cold war politics that continues in different forms today. The confrontation of these two characters and these two actors is mesmerizing theatre.

The set design by Tim Morrison contains an efficiently pivoting hotel suite bedroom, evoking two identical, perhaps mirror imaged, suites occupied by the two candidates at the convention hotel. The set is simply and effectively dressed with campaign posters, Time/Life magazine cover mock-ups, and black and white images of generic political convention hooplah.

Some of the best lines continue to ring long after the curtain is down. Cantwell argues that ends justify the means of getting into political office. Ex-president Hockstader replies to the earnest Cantwell “there are no ends, Joe, only means.” Ex-president Hockstader prods and observes the two candidates, and it is a surprise which way he leans with his endorsement. As he notes at the time he reports his decision: “Power is not a toy we give to good children” And Russell delivers a line to his junior Cantwell that represents every silver-haired survivor’s amazement at self-assured inexperience: “I like how you state the obvious with a real sense of discovery.”

All aspects of the production design and direction and performances keep our focus clearly and intensely on the concepts presented in this play and the dialogue used to discuss them. This is a timely and timeless play, and a lovely and respectful and provocative production.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 24, 2006)

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